Connecting the Dots of His Life: Ulysses Andrews ’94
Growing up, Ulysses Andrews ’94 and his family lived in West Philadelphia. His parents, who had been educated in the public school system, had no reason to look elsewhere when their eldest child was ready for kindergarten. But at some point that year, Andrews’ teachers suggested that he was in the wrong place. He routinely finished his work quickly and, with nothing else to do, simply fell asleep. The adults agreed that he should probably be skipped ahead a grade or two or sent to a different school.
Friends mentioned Miquon and although the vibe and approach were different and less traditional than his parents were used to, they enrolled their son in first grade there.
Among his earliest memories of Miquon is his first teacher, Betty Tilley, and her welcoming classroom. He also clearly recalls the “feel” of the campus and the classroom itself: the cubbies, hooks for jackets and wooden shelves for books and toys—the rug used during circle time and show and tell, tiny tables and chairs, and the blackboard and just one computer set in one corner.
The Value of Play
But it is the building blocks Andrews remembers most clearly from those early days—playing on the floor with the various shapes and the wooden rectangular blocks in different lengths, in bright, primary colors. Nestling them together in diverse iterations, he created buildings and villages. Illustrating stories through those blocks brought him great joy. It’s only much later that he came to realize that one of his favorite playtime activities was teaching him a thing or two.
And it wasn’t until he was about to graduate and explored options for middle school and high school that he grasped the true value of the creative play that marked his elementary years.
“I was sitting in a class in a Mainline private school and it all felt so obvious. I wondered why these kids in the grade ahead of me were just learning what I already knew,” Andrews remembers. “Miquon never felt like learning. To play around and then discuss what we did—it wasn’t work.”
He concedes that reading about the 50 states and their capitals was learning and the study of Latin was learning too. “But we would be asked, ‘What are you interested in learning?’ and then we would go from there,” he adds.
Andrews’ love of creating new worlds with those first-grade blocks extended over the years into building catapults in third-grade science; figuring out how to make a rubber band gun; and trying to fly ever more elaborate paper airplanes.
Always implicit in these creative play explorations were lessons of physics, science and mathematics, not to mention artistic expression.
“Miquon was good at encouraging two things [for me],” Andrews says. “Love of exploration and love of art. Both fit into wanting to learn mathematics.”
He explains: “Every year, we did fun art projects and I loved to create things. Having so many chances to do that made me just want to do it more. And I see the value of that, then as well as now. People who do art or are into art appreciate it more and have ways of appreciating everything else. They see everything as a means or opportunity to have fun and be creative.”
And here’s where mathematics comes in.
“The only interesting problems [in mathematics] are those that haven’t been solved,” he says. “The way mathematicians feel about these things is, either go find a new problem or find a way to bootstrap an old problem into a new context. Once you know how the parts work in another problem, you can fit them together in different ways. Once you learn the rules of the system, you can play with them.
“I definitely credit Miquon for connecting those dots between my earliest days and now.”
Perhaps his most vivid memories align with his educational and career trajectory. Andrews went on to attend Germantown Academy and then Princeton, where he majored in Mathematics. He earned his master’s in Mathematics with a focus on Fourier Analysis from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and his doctoral degree from the University of Connecticut with a dissertation on Fractals.
In between degrees, Andrews taught math at the Kent School in Connecticut and met and married his wife, Zeynep Isvan, who holds a Ph.D. in Neutrino Physics, and started a family. Their son, Owen, is now three and will soon be a big brother.
Today, they live outside of Boston, where Andrews is a consultant for Ab Initio Software, where he works with clients to solve problems related to big data processing.
“My work is related to all aspects of computing, algorithm design, code management, computing and capacity planning, relating to data and metadata management, security. . . anything in computing is fair game,” he says.
Without a doubt, problem-solving and fitting together bits of a computerized puzzle in a business where he is “encouraged to explore the software and choose problems to work on” sounds somewhat familiar.
“I didn’t realize at first how connected my career is to what I learned [through creative play] at Miquon,” Andrews says. “I guess any environment in which I’m encouraged to explore is one that is good for me.”